Summer 2015

Meet the Lab

This is the first in what hopes to be a regular addition to the APS newsletter. While it is always nice to highlight a particular APS member, we all know that it is often the graduate students, lab managers, and postdoctoral fellows in the trenches that push the science along. In the spirit of recognizing those efforts I am proud to present to you the following:

Meet the DIeting, Stress and Health (DiSH) Lab

Lab Director: A. Janet Tomiyama, Ph.D.

APS: Who are you and what do you study in the DiSH lab?

AJT: I received my B.A. in Psychology from Cornell University, my Ph.D. in Social Psychology, minoring in Health and Quantitative Psych, from UCLA, and was a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar at UCSF/Berkeley. I am now Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at UCLA in the Health Psychology area.

I began my career studying low-calorie dieting, and how it never seemed to lead to long-term weight loss. I’ve found that dieting is stressful and engages the HPA axis, which in turn could trigger obesogenic processes like cortisol-induced fat deposition and stress eating. Given that dieting doesn’t seem to work (and no one likes doing it), my next question was why people would torture themselves by going on diets. The answer, I suspect, is weight stigma, which is really pervasive and doesn’t enjoy the same legal protections like we see with race, gender, and sexual orientation. In the past couple years I’ve been testing a model where weight stigma induces stress, which induces cortisol and eating, in turn increasing weight - a vicious cycle model of weight stigma.

APS: How is the lab structured?

AJT: I tend to select graduate students who fit three criteria: (1) Tons of research experience, specifically experience in the most tedious and annoying parts of research. I want students who understand the daily grind of research and somehow still want to make a career of it. This means all my graduate students have had at least a year of post-bac research experience. (2) Enjoy math and statistics. So much of what we do depends on a deep knowledge of statistics, and I’ve found stats nerds tend to be stellar methodologists as well. (2) Overflowing with testable research ideas - this is the fuel that sustains an academic’s career, and my most important criterion. Then, I try to support and help them develop their own program of research. Although this means there will likely never be a Janet clone, I find it incredibly invigorating to constantly stretch my research boundaries. And my students are so stellar that this process makes me a better academic.

APS: Are there any unique aspects of this lab?

AJT: We meet as a group once a week, usually to workshop a draft of a paper/grant, or to struggle through a new study design. My lab is built so that we have standing-up meetings (“sitting is the new smoking!” is a refrain heard often around the lab), which is healthy. But, you will always find M&Ms, potato chips, and ice cream left over from our experiments, which is not so healthy. Our lab dog, Cashew, runs around during lab meetings licking lotion off of everyone’s legs, which is not healthy for her, but good social support for everyone in our lab, which hopefully tips everything back towards healthiness.

APS: Now let’s meet some members of the DiSH Lab

Jenna Cummings (Graduate Student):

JC: I earned my BA in Psychology at the University of South Florida. Currently, I am a third year doctoral student in the health psychology program at UCLA, and in 2014 received my M.A. in Psychology as part of the program. I was also recently awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. My primary focus is at the biopsychosocial intersection of reinforcement pathways to two critical health behaviors: drinking alcohol and eating food. My most current study examines how sharing in unhealthy eating and drinking (versus healthy) influences friendships. Learn more at: jennarcummings.weebly.com. My favorite talk at APS was the 2015 plenary address by John Cryan. I was in awe about his studies showcasing the role of microbiota in the central nervous system.

Laura Finch (Graduate Student):

LF: I am a fourth year doctoral student in UCLA's Health Psychology program. I earned my B.S. in Human Development at Cornell University with concentrations in Social and Personality Development as well as Nutrition and Health, and went on to earn my M.A. in Psychology at UCLA. I’m currently supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. My most recent work focuses on comfort eating, including both the physiological underpinnings driving this behavior and the psychological benefits it reaps via stress reduction. My favorite talk at APS was a 2014 symposium titled, "What's the vagus got to do with it? Prospective studies of heart rate variability." Researchers and health professionals collect so many biological markers of health these days, and I think it's important for us to understand how each measurement relates to actual behavior and health outcomes. At this symposium, I learned from Julian Thayer and colleagues how heart rate variability can predict sleep quality, inflammation, and other heart activities.

Jolene Nguyen-Cuu (Postbaccalaureate Lab Manager):

JNC: I recently earned my BS in Psychobiology at UCLA and will be applying to medical school in the spring. I have been the manager of the DiSH Lab for over a year now and am excited to continue my contributions during my gap years. Being a huge foodie and a skeptic of fad diets, I was initially interested in the DiSH Lab because I wanted scientific evidence behind dieting. I have also always believed that health is a state of physical, mental, and social well-being, so I am continually excited by how our research goes beyond the physiological implications of dieting. Many people mistakenly look at weight as a measure of health and tend to overlook the psychological and social consequences of dieting and weight stigma. With this, I love how our research is not only extremely important, but also immediately applicable. Because of how relevant our research is, I actually often find myself discussing our findings with friends and family.

Erin Standen (Undergraduate Lab Manager):

ES: I’m a fourth-year undergraduate student at UCLA studying Psychobiology and Spanish. I’ve been interested in food, nutrition, and weight since I was young, but was first introduced to the field of health psychology when I took Dr. Tomiyama’s Fiat Lux seminar on the psychology of eating. Later that year, I was actually a participant in one of the DiSH Lab’s studies (Himmelstein et al., 2015), and I found it so intriguing that I was determined to get involved in the lab’s research! In my past two years as an RA, I've become very familiar with the lab’s areas of research, and I’ve grown more and more interested in the psychological and biological implications of eating, dieting, and weight stigma. I’m delighted to now be a manager of the lab, and can’t wait to get to work on my senior honors thesis (also in the DiSH lab, on weight stigma) in the Fall! 

Cashew (lab dog):

C: woof.

Want to know more about the DiSH Lab? Check out the website: www.dishlab.org